Utah is well known for being settled by the people of the L.D.S. church, but many towns in the state were settled by pioneers with a wide range of motivations other than as sanctuaries where they could practice their religion. The St. George area of southwest Utah has been explored and inhabited by a wide variety of cultures over its history with humans, from various waves of native hunters and farmers to European explorers like the Spanish, and settlers like the Mormons, however the search for mineral wealth drove some American pioneers to every corner of the country. The region is host to many old mines, thousands of exploratory pits as well as some modern active mines across the southern counties. This area has been mined for everything from uranium to gypsum. But perhaps the most unique of all are the silver mines of Silver Reef. This small, and now-abandoned cluster of mines are famed for being the only place in the U.S. where silver was mined from sandstone. Just to the northwest of interstate 15 , lies an exposed ridge of this shinarump sandstone with the breath-taking backdrop of the Red Cliffs Recreation Area, and Pine Valley Mountain beyond that. This town, like many of that era, boomed in the 1870’s and slowly died as the value of silver dropped.
Two stories of the silver deposits’ discovery exist. The most-commonly accepted is of John Kemple, who was visiting in the nearby town of Harrisburg in 1866 and hiked the area to prospect for ores. He discovered bands of silver in the ridge northwest of where the freeway lies today, but didn’t initially find enough silver to be justify large scale mining until five years later. Over the next few years, two failed attempts to develop the mines forced him to sell his claims. At the same time news of silver bearing sedimentary rock was spreading, and by 1875, two bankers from Salt Lake City, the Walker Brothers, hired a man named William T. Barbee to stake several claims on their behalf. After the establishment of 21 claims, word began to spread through the western mining community. Before the end of the year, the town first called “Bonanza City” was growing fast, while another miner camp at the site of today’s Silver Reef area was called “Rockpile.” The name of Silver Reef was adopted the same year (1875) as a large number of miners came from mines in Pioche Nevada to seek work after their mines were shut down. The word “Reef” was a fairly common term in those days, as it referred to geologic formations that were impassible by wagon, as a reef in nautical terms is impassible to a ship.
By 1879, Silver Reef’s Main Street was a mile long and the town featured a bank, a newspaper, 5 restaurants; along with dance halls, saloons, hotels, a brewery, cemeteries and churches. South of town, more than 200 Chinese immigrant workers, having recently worked on the transcontinental railroad settled Silver Reef’s Chinatown, which had its own mayor and businesses geared to providing for the miners.
All of this this must have been a huge contrast to the strict Mormon communities of St. George and Washington just a half days ride away. While relations with the neighboring LDS towns were mostly good, the explosive growth of the population of Silver reef, did cause the Washington county line to be adjusted to prevent the town of Silver Reef from becoming the county seat, keeping the political power within the population centers of LDS faithful.
Like many mine towns of that era, Silver Reef had its share of shoot-outs, gambling, prostitution, fires and debates over labor wages. One mine was forced to temporarily shut down by labor union workers during a strike over such wages in 1881. The issue was eventually resolved when the Washington county sheriff, who arrested the participating members of the strike.
Decline of the Mines
As the value of silver declined in the early 1880’s, so did miners’ wages, as well as the profits that sustained the mining companies. By 1891, all of the mines here were closed, and though many attempts were made at reviving the mines, none could overcome the basic economics of a low silver price and ever lower concentrations of metal in the ore. Infrequent attempts persisted until 1951 when the last mining operation took place here, yet by then the interest was in Uranium for the booming nuclear power industry. Just over 1 ton of Uranium Oxide was mined from this area during this era, but as higher concentrations of ore were found elsewhere, the operation closed for the final time.
Since then, hikers sometimes find pieces of sandstone containing small silver bands and this geologic layer also contains a plethora of petrified wood that was deposited here along with the sediment over 230 million years ago. Silver Reef’s historic mines and ancient fossils are not the last treasure to be found in this area, as the landscapes, view sheds, and location adjacent to the interstate are a treasure to modern home owners and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
Silver Reef today
Silver Reef is a bedroom and retirement community remote from but close enough to the major towns of St. George to the south and Cedar City to the north. It is also a convenient location for the recreationally minded with the Kolob canyon section of Zion National Park 20 minutes away, and an even shorter drives to the Red Cliffs Recreation Area, Sand Hollow State Park, and the vast Pine Valley mountains just out of town. Camping, hiking, backpacking, hunting and canyoneering are all possible activities in the Dixie National Forest, which includes the 10,300 foot tall Pine Valley Mountain, the highest point in the county. The nearby Quail Creek reservoir and Sand Hollow State Park offer boating and fishing opportunities. Sand Hollow also has twenty thousand acres of land for ATV and Jeep riding. Brian Head ski resort is approximately one hour away from here as well. Silver Reef’s incredible views and its proximity to so much amazing outdoor recreation has made property values here increase much in recent decades and modern homes now surround the old historic buildings of this once-booming American mining town.
Visiting Silver Reef
Silver Reef is well-worth the short 20 mile drive north from Saint George to visit the museum and old buildings that still stand today, reminding us of our country’s recent past. Some of these buildings have been restored after suffering damage and erosion. The landscaping of the historic buildings is littered with old, rusted mining equipment that make great family photographs. There is one small open building here with small replicas of the town behind glass displays and a recorded narrative history available to play here at the push of the button.
There is a museum here as well, which is open Mondays and Thursday-Saturdays, from 10AM-5PM. They offer guided tours of the museum for $3 per person or $10 per family. Tours are available at 10:30AM, 1PM and 3PM.
Click here for the Sliver Reef museum’s website: http:/www.silverreefutah.org
For guided hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and canyoneering tours in the surrounding areas of Silver Reef, please contact us at Paragon Adventures.